The Importance of Failure to Creativity

March 25, 2019

There’s a great struggle inherent to advertising, design and marketing: we prize creativity and exploration above all while our clients have specific, often costly objectives that need to be met. Tension comes from reconciling these fundamental differences between art and commerce. The two can mix, even Rembrandt painted his benefactors, but advertising is mostly beholden to contemporary economies—thus are we. Exploration carries a huge risk of failure, and considering business anxieties in 2019 this means failure isn’t an ideal option.

The impact this has on all employees—people—and particularly on creative professionals who need the freedom to explore uncharted areas ultimately runs counter to business objectives. We risk burning out while becoming savvier, more exposed audiences jaded by another ad capitalizing on a popular meme from six months ago. You don’t have to take our word for it; Martin Weigel of W+K wrote quite a comprehensive argument for putting creativity into the corporation.

One of our favorite quotes: “Being interesting is the only chance we have of competing for an unfair share of cultural attention.”

Chaotic Creativity
Chaotic Creativity

Fear of flying

What Martin, and so many others working in creative industries, has called for is an evolution in the way that clients and creatives work together. Those of us in these industries know better than most that creative exhaustion is a real thing, competition for business is tighter than it’s ever been and that something needs to give.

Premature as it is to toss our hands up and lay down the rules for a new type of creative-corporate relationship, we can at least address the psychological limitations that come from a fear of failure. Nearly all great ideas and well-known artists have grappled with some form of failure arising from experimentation.

Had it not been for trying out various policies after the financial ruin of the 1920s, the United States wouldn’t have social security today. If Gisele had taken ‘no’ for an answer after the 42nd time, she wouldn’t have gone to the 43rd model casting. If Anna Wintour hadn’t been fired from Harper's, she might’ve not come to the same level of influence in her industry.

These are the big stories of those who persisted, but there are billions of similar stories belonging to less-known people unwilling to let rejection and failure keep them down.

A positive way to think about failure


“I recommend that you all get fired. It’s a great learning experience,” said Wintour. Before we rush ahead of ourselves, it’s important to take stock of the vulnerabilities involved in that today—whether losing a job means being unable to afford rent, healthcare or student loan payments.

With this in mind, the philosophy of embracing failure or rejection can translate positively into other areas of our lives. If we’re worried about making fools of ourselves in front of our teams due to our ideas or that we might fail to make a winning impression on potential employers; if you can accept the reality that this failure is natural, you’re actually more likely to succeed.

It’s an odd paradox, but this nonsensical pattern functions just like the creative process. As creative people, we should embrace the prospect of failure in our work more than others, though ideally within reason if our vulnerabilities are too massive. But if a failure does result in more significant damage, never lose sight of the truth that you’ll come back from it. When you do, the energy and emotion involved will have molded you into someone capable of thinking through eccentric, fresh ideas that provide teams and clients with the jolt of inspiration they need to make an impact on your audiences.

Introduce these conversations, if you haven’t already, with clients and colleagues. Opening up the discussion is the proper point to begin redesigning the way we think about ideas, audiences and our objectives.

Best put by Julius Meier-Graefe, a German essayist and art critic of 19th and 20th-century art history, “All great works of art are trophies of victorious struggle.”  Let your ideas be mocked by colleagues, stutter through an interview, miss the shot 10,000 times—it's important for that to happen. By failing at things, we evolve and get better in time. Just pick yourself up and try again